LOS ANGELES — Adolescent girls in braids and pigtails and teenage boys wearing jeans and sneakers sat alongside their parents in the courtroom of Immigration Judge Frank Travieso to hear how long they might be allowed to stay in the United States.
Travieso grabbed four thick books and dropped each one on his desk with a thud, warning the families in his Los Angeles courtroom about the thousands of pages of immigration laws and interpretations that could affect their cases and urging them to get a lawyer.
“This is even smaller print,” he said of the 1,200-page book containing regulations during the hearing last month. “I am not trying to scare you, but I’m trying to ensure your children get a full and fair hearing.”
He then sent them on their way and told them to report back in February.
The scene is one that could become more common as the country’s already backlogged immigration courts brace for a deluge of tens of thousands of Central American children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months.
The court system is so overwhelmed that it can currently take three years to get a hearing, and many believe the delays will only get worse in the months ahead. For many immigrants, the delays in the court system work in their favor because they know they have so long before their cases are resolved.
“This situation just happens to be a magnitude unlike anything we have ever seen,” said Lauren Alder Reid, counsel for legislative and public affairs at the U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the courts.
Immigration courts in the United States have long been troubled. The courts, overseen by the Department of Justice, have more than 375,000 cases being handled by just 243 judges, according to the agency.
It can take months or years to get hearings for immigrants who aren’t in detention facilities, let alone a resolution. Immigration lawyers said judges are already setting hearings for 2017.
The Obama administration has said it will move quickly to process thousands of immigrant children and families arriving on the Texas border fleeing violence and extortion from gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Since October, more than 57,000 unaccompanied children have reached the U.S., prompting the government to set up temporary shelters and fly immigrants to other states to be processed. Officials have asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to cope with the crisis, including the hiring of more judges.
After Central American immigrants are apprehended at the border, they are usually processed at one of several facilities that have been set up across Texas and the Southwest.
Children are placed in shelters and reunited with family members in the U.S. before being told to report to an immigration office and ultimately given a date before a judge in a process that can take years.
In immigration court, many immigrants fail to attend their hearings and are issued deportation orders. More than one in five immigrants not in federal custody were given court orders in their absence during the 2013 fiscal year, according to court statistics.
Obama administration critics say the huge delays only encourage more immigrants to try to come here and turn themselves in at the border, knowing they’ll be allowed to wait years for their cases to be resolved.
“The system is so dysfunctional,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. “They get to stay, and the more time they spend here, the more difficult it is to get them removed.”
Vaughan said courts ought to handle cases in reverse order, tackling those on the border first to speed up deportations and deter would-be immigrants and stem the surge.
Since the influx, the immigration courts have temporarily reassigned seven judges to hear cases in southern Texas and three judges to handle hearings at a recently created New Mexico detention facility via teleconferencing, Alder Reid said. She could not say how many cases have been postponed but expects the latest influx of immigrants will have a significant impact.
“The number of non-detained backlog cases is going to rise from overwhelming to overwhelming times ten,” said Bruce Einhorn, a retired immigration judge in Los Angeles. “Until we enlarge the court system, we should brace ourselves for a bloody mess.”
The huge flow of immigrants into the court system has also created legal issues for the immigrants themselves.
Attorneys are typically not provided at government expense or required in immigration court, and children may end up in court on their own with only a relative to vouch for them.
Megan McKenna, advocacy director for Kids in Need of Defense, said her organization’s offices in Houston and New York were flooded this month with requests for pro-bono lawyers. She estimates the number of children lacking attorneys has jumped from about half to at least 70 percent since the influx began three years ago.
Immigrant advocates fearing the administration may try to curtail children’s access to the courts to cope with the crunch sued this week to try to get the government to give them lawyers.
At the border, adults who fail to prove they have a fear of returning to their country could be deported more quickly and without seeing a judge. Government officials and lawmakers are debating ways to handle the children’s cases more swiftly, much like they do with Mexican youth, who often don’t get a hearing in court.
Unaccompanied children from Central America, however, are reunited with family and given a court date. Those abandoned or abused by their parents may apply for a special legal status, and those fleeing violence can apply for asylum at a government office.
The immigration courts currently have more than 41,000 juvenile cases, including those involving unaccompanied border-crossers as well as long-time residents facing deportation and adults who were initially apprehended as children.
In immigration court in Los Angeles, Marta Vasquez, 55, was told by Travieso to bring her teenage daughter back next year with an update on her application for asylum. Vasquez, who came here fleeing an abusive husband in Guatemala nine years ago, left the building without fear that her family would be torn apart by deportation – at least not any time soon.
“These are the first court dates,” Vasquez later said. “Only God knows if this is going to be short or is going to be long.”